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Internet Safety for Kids

MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter can help teens connect with friends — but can leave them vulnerable to bullying and worse, too. Here's how to keep your kid safe online.

Mistake 5: Forgetting Their Futures

Teens frequently post photos from — or messages about — their wildest adventures on their social-networking pages, thinking that only their friends will see them. In fact, 54 percent of 18-year-olds on MySpace post about behavior such as sexual activity or substance use, according to a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. But what many kids don't realize is that posting about these escapades can hurt them in the college-admissions race and future job searches.

"I've had several students who have been expelled from private high school or had admissions letters withdrawn because of drug- and alcohol-abuse images posted on Facebook," says Mark Truman, executive director of Omniac Education, a test-prep and college-consulting service in Arizona and New Mexico. Indeed, a recent study conducted at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth found that 21 percent of colleges use social-networking sites to gather information about applicants.

Despite the risks, surveys show that 49 percent of teens are unconcerned that what they post online might negatively affect their futures. And while some may try to protect themselves by keeping their profiles private, the best protection is not to post anything incriminating in the first place. "The Web never forgets," says Scott Granneman, a technology expert and adjunct professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "You may post a picture and then delete it, but anybody can copy it when it's live and store it on a blog, Flickr [a photo sharing site], or their own Facebook page. You never know what can come back to haunt you later."

Help your kids avoid such problems by sharing some cautionary tales with them, and ask them if they think this could ever happen to them. But back that up by checking their pages — and their friends' pages — to see what turns up. And keep talking (and talking, and talking some more) about what's safe and not safe online, says Vila: "The more dialogue you have now, the less damage control you'll have to do later."

The Scoop on Sexting

As if social-networking snafus don't give parents enough to worry about, here's a new concern: sexting — in which tweens and teens use mobile devices to snap sexually charged photos of themselves and send the pictures to friends. A recent study found one in five teens had sent or posted a sexually explicit photo of himself or herself. For the kids, it may be just misguided hijinks, but it can have harsh consequences: Several teens have faced charges of disseminating child pornography due to photos they have taken of themselves or pictures of others they've forwarded. So be sure to talk with your kids about how sexting is one of the worst moves they could make.


Originally published on July 17, 2009


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